The 2016 Ig Nobel Peace prize was, as you may have seen, awarded for a paper discussing the receptiveness of various groups to “pseudo-profound bullshit.”
Within that paper, “bullshit” was given an academic context, and a conceptual description, taken from the work of Harry Frankfurt; “as something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth.”
In Britain, the OED definition of bullshit as nonsense is the more common use, whilst what is described above comes under a different word: banter. “My dad’s bigger than your dad.”? Banter. “I went to school with Ed Sheeran.”? Banter. “I shagged that girl who works in Asda.”? Banter. Banter means idle ego-stroking chatter, shared in a consensual space with no concern for truth or appropriateness.
It’s clear from the outset that banter and ethics aren’t designed for each other. For something to qualify as banter, as bullshit or bluster, it must be insincere in its concern for the truth. Once that is established, criticising the sincerity of the view expressed on ethical grounds is nonsensical.
That is presumably why it is so attractive as the last refuge of the desperate in the court of public opinion. The League Managers Association invoked it over text messages between Malky Mackay and Iain Moody. Dapper Laughs almost became synonymous with it. In the last week, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump have been at it.
The reasoning is incredibly curious. To take Trump’s remarks at face value is almost ethically redundant; having spent his entire career in the public eye being variously xenophobic, sexist and generally unpleasant, these remarks come simply as confirmation and evidence of what was already known. That they have been the final straw for a few more senior Republicans is more indicative of their relative valuations of politics and ethics than it is of Trump’s.
Thus, the damage was already done, and this comes as reaffirmation rather than revelation. So why have Trump and Farage sought refuge in banter? Two possible answers present themselves, and from an ethical perspective, Trump’s reputation fares little better in either case.
In the first, he and Farage exist in a world populated only by people exactly like them, where a chap can say you can “grab ‘em by the pussy” without fear of any social consequence. In the second, the world is the same, except a chap actually can commit various acts of sexual violence against the women he occasionally encounters, and boast about it later, and receive social benefits for doing so. When questioned by anyone outside that world, they simply refer to the rules of the world: see that sexist behaviour we engage in? That’s what men do, that is.
As Farage rightly points out, none of us want our pillow talk, post-ironic racist retellings or casual insults to our friends splashed over CNN. None of us want to be judged solely on the number of “your mum” jokes we’ve ever made. The critical difference is that we’re not running a campaign for President that reads like a series of club comic jokes with all the punchlines missing.
Robin Hill is a final year Philosophy, Politics, & Law student at Swansea University. In addition to Undercurrent Philosophy, he writes for the superb Jack Swan Swansea City fanzine on the Philosophy of the Beautiful Game. He often considers biographies to be a positive inversion of Aristotle’s ad hominem fallacy, and the first step on the road to Sophistry.